Welcome back to The Rotation! Here's a look at five topics shaping the week ahead in Major League Baseball.
1. Overpriced underdogs?
The two teams that entered 2016 with payrolls north of $200 million are viable contenders in the stretch run. Back when you could basically buy your way to October, this wouldn't have even registered as remotely interesting or surprising.
But it sure feels different when you're discussing the '16 Dodgers and Yankees, who meet this week in the Bronx.
Yeah, among those who weren't sold on even-year superstition in San Francisco and those who weren't overly enamored with the D-backs' big winter, the Dodgers were a popular pick to win the National League West for the fourth straight year. In that context, the fact that they entered the week with a 61.1-percent chance of doing so doesn't really rate as a surprise.
But such predictions were made before Clayton Kershaw missed more than two months, before the Dodgers used 82 different defensive lineups and 104 batting orders and, most notably, before they used 15 different starting pitchers.
So, no, this season hasn't exactly gone to plan in L.A. But the Dodgers were, surprisingly, 14 games over .500 sans Kershaw, with the third-best on-base percentage and fourth-best slugging percentage in baseball in that span. And now, with Kershaw back and Rich Hill and Kenta Maeda following, the Dodgers have a legitimate 1-3 for their October rotation. Hill, you might have heard, had -- ahem -- a blistering performance going in Miami on Saturday until Dave Roberts removed him after seven perfect innings.
As for the Yankees, it's not even just about the AL Wild Card anymore. After trading away Carlos Beltran, Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman, they've actually played themselves into the division conversation -- and they've still got 14 games left against the Red Sox, Blue Jays and Orioles.
A 162-game schedule would expose this current Yankee roster as too thin and inexperienced to contend. But we're talking about a club that just needs to stay hot for three weeks. And with the suddenly-more-youthful Yanks playing loose, easy and pressure-free for the first time in recent memory, anything appears possible.
You can't put a price on a story like that.
(Shameless plug: Daron Sutton, Mike Petriello and I will be doing Tuesday's MLB Plus broadcast of Dodgers-Yankees on MLB.TV.)
2. Stras'd out
Stephen Strasburg's flexor strain was generally described in a positive light last week not because of what it was but because of what it wasn't -- another dreaded UCL tear. But a flexor strain can be a precursor to UCL issues. They are neighbors in the elbow and therefore endure similar stresses.
The other, more pressing issue is a matter of timing. Given that flexor strains often take no less than a month to recover from, the Nats can't actively plan on having Strasburg in their October rotation, as Strasburg himself acknowledged over the weekend. Washington's rotation might be good enough (Max Scherzer is a legit Cy Young candidate, and Tanner Roark's year is drastically underrated) but it obviously won't be as strong as initially envisioned.
This has led some to the conclusion that the infamous Strasburg September Shutdown four years ago was a mistake.
And look, maybe it was.
The Nats took an educated guess that capping Strasburg's innings at what was a 159 percent increase over a year earlier was the best way to protect him long term, but his elbow is not cooperating at a time when he's needed most. Washington fell flat in '13 and '15 and couldn't get out of the first round even with Strasburg in '14. The team was successful in initiating a thoughtful conversation on how best to space out the workloads of young Tommy John alums so that they're available at the most pivotal juncture of the season schedule, but that's little consolation in the here and now.
Remember, though, the Nats lost the 2012 Division Series because of their relief pitching, not their starting pitching. Maybe the Strasburg effect has been overstated. Nobody really knows.
But with the NL East title all but in hand, the Nats are about to embark upon another October mission without the oft-injured right-hander.
At least they can say they've been here before.
3. Don't sell him short
Carlos Correa was pretty matter-of-fact about it all.
"If we don't make the playoffs," he told me last week, "it's a [bad] season."
Let your imagination wander on this family-friendly site, but I think you get the gist of the word left out of that quote. The Astros were touted by many as a World Series contender, and Correa was touted by many as an MVP candidate. A 7-17 April and Correa's sophomore adjustment compromised both causes, though the Astros are at least still mathematically alive in the Wild Card race as they enter a key series against the in-state rival Rangers this week, and Correa, while short of MVP worthiness (that's Jose Altuve's terrain), has had a pretty freaking great year for a 21-year-old shortstop.
Correa is probably going to finish with 20 homers, 30 doubles and 100 RBIs, but, more to the point, he entered the week with a 125 OPS+, or 25 percent better than league average. How many shortstops aged 21 or younger have ever had an OPS+ that high in a full season? Just three:
Alex Rodriguez, 20, 1996: 161
Arky Vaughan, 21, 1933: 146
Rogers Hornsby, 21, 1917: 169
"You're telling me it's been a good year for a 21-year-old," Correa said, "but I don't think it's been a good year. I've had to make a lot of adjustments."
This has been a season of adjustments for the 'Stros, who clearly have to re-evaluate the way they build a starting staff if they're going to live up to the lofty World Series projections.
Correa, meanwhile, is still well on his way to living up to lofty projections, even if touting him as an MVP in his first full season turned out to be overly ambitious.
4. Road, sweet road
If the baseball gods love us, they'll give us a Cubs-Cardinals series. And I'm not talking about the three-game set at Busch Stadium that begins Monday night. I'm talking about an NL Division Series.
Look, I get it. You're sick of the Cards in October. But a great rivalry is a great rivalry, and you've got to love the idea of the St. Louis trying to return the '15 favor by upending the Cubs' 100-win campaign.
Of course, for this to happen, the Red Birds have to get to and through the Wild Card Game, and this might be the only WC contender in baseball that would be better off finishing with the fifth seed instead of the fourth. The Cardinals have really bumbled at home this year, entering the week with the sixth-worst home winning percentage (.457) in baseball. They had the best road winning percentage (.606) in the sport.
The St. Louis Post Dispatch's Derrick Goold made the salient point that perhaps the Cards just aren't very well-constructed for their home park. Busch profiles as pitching-friendly, and the Cards have relied on the long ball for 45 percent of their run output this season -- a stark difference from the 100-win 2015 club, which scored just 34 percent of its runs via the long ball.
The good news? After this three-game set with the Cubbies, the Cards hit the road for a 10-game stretch that includes a visit to homer-happy Coors Field. Maybe that'll help them in their bid for a Wild Card spot.
But again, not the top Wild Card spot. That would be dangerous.
5. BP banter
I recently overheard a hitting coach and his assistant (co-coaches are all the rage these days) arguing about how many minutes batting practice rounds should last this time of year. A player from another club privately complained that his team is overdoing it in BP, to the point where coaches are virtually dragging their sore arms back to the locker room after BP.
This all speaks to the bigger-picture point that, for all the analytical data out there, nobody knows how much is too much when it comes to pregame prep, particularly among contending teams in the home stretch. Joe Maddon might be on to something when he calls BP "overrated." The Cubs stopped taking it outside late last season, and they backed off big-time again this August (they even had "American Legion week," in which players were forbidden from showing up to the clubhouse early).
Indians manager Terry Francona admitted there can be value in keeping guys off their feet at this point.
"We have a lot of optional hitting now," he said. "I try to explain it to the younger guys, because a lot of times they think they're being tested [by the word 'optional']. But a guy like Jose Ramirez, who isn't the biggest guy and has played a lot of games, you explain that you don't have to hit every day. It's not to be lazy, it's so that we're all rested."
Everybody, get your rest. We're in the playoff push here.
Anthony Castrovince is a Sports on Earth contributor, MLB.com columnist and MLB Network contributor. Follow him on Twitter @Castrovince.